As the most barbaric event of the twentieth century, the Nazis' mass extermination of Jews during World War II has served as the basis of countless books, plays, and films over the past sixty years.
No surprise there, since we humans have always drawn our most powerful, memorable stories from the most tragic events of our time. In great tragedy lies great drama, of course -- but also a cautionary truth about ourselves and what we're capable of when the ugly forces of hate and ignorance take over.
The more recent examples of genocide and "ethnic cleansing" around the globe prove that the dark forces which fueled the Holocaust can return, just decades after our forebears first saw the ghastly footage from the concentration camps, and cried out with one voice, "Never again".
This disturbing fact only suggests that periodically we all should revisit the best books and films on the Holocaust, however unpleasant, to keep our own awareness, watchfulness, and revulsion very much alive.
Again, there is no shortage of worthy choices. In the realm of film, many Holocaust-themed films are justly famous. In the documentary sphere, noone who seriously wants to understand what happened can pass up two such films, done from opposing sides, and over a half century apart: Leni Riefenstahl's "Triumph Of The Will" (1935), a brilliant and unnerving piece of propaganda that made a nation fall in love with a monster; and "The Sorrow and the Pity" (1970), Marcel Ophuls's exhaustive work of genius about conditions in his native France during the Nazi occupation.
On the narrative side, Steven Spielberg's haunting "Schindler's List" (1993) is likely the most widely viewed film about the Holocaust, and among the director's finest work. Other enduring classics, like "The Diary of Anne Frank" (1959), "Sophie's Choice" (1982), and more recently, "The Pianist" (2001), evoke the period (and/or its aftermath) on a more intimate, personal level, but to equally devastating effect.
Yet there's even more top-notch work, produced mostly in Europe since the war, that has not gained such a broad audience. What follows are ten particularly distinguished examples:
The Murderers Are Among Us (1948) -- After she's released from a Nazi concentration camp, Susanne Wallner (Hildegarde Knef) returns to her apartment to find it occupied by a former officer and surgeon, Hans Martens (Ernst Wilhelm Borchert), tormented by his complicity in the Holocaust. Susanne offers to share her flat until Martens can find other accommodations, but finds herself drawn to the anguished, self-destructive young man. Made in crumbling, bomb-scarred East Berlin in 1946, "Murderers" is not only Germany's first postwar production, but a haunting film of disillusionment and atonement. The film's stark power comes from the unlikely bond that develops between Susanne, a camp survivor who craves normalcy, and hard-drinking, guilt-ridden Hans, who cannot return to his practice because he no longer believes humanity is worth the effort of sparing. Filmed in an expressionistic style, "Murderers" powerfully dramatizes the rebirth of hope amid literal ruins, human and otherwise.
Naked Among Wolves (1963) -- In 1945, as the Allies approach Buchenwald, a 4-year-old Polish boy is smuggled via suitcase into the infamous concentration camp, where he is hidden by camp leader Walter Kraemer (Erwin Geschonneck) at the behest of fellow inmate Hofel (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who knows the SS will shoot him on sight. Moved by the child's innocence, the prisoners secret him from one hiding spot to another, but it's only a matter of time before the Nazis are alerted to his presence, forcing the men to an uncertain fate. Based on a true story and presaging such Holocaust dramas as "Schindler's List," Frank Beyer's "Wolves" concerns the real-life efforts of dozens of concentration-camp inmates to hide an orphan from their Nazi captors. An influential and important film produced in East Germany with little-known actors (only Mueller-Stahl's career would continue in Europe), "Wolves" speaks to the will to survive terrible atrocity and highlights the bravery of ordinary men who find themselves in an extreme situation. The final riot scene is a cathartic climax to a compelling film.
The Pawnbroker (1964) -- Haunted by his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp, which his wife and family did not survive, Jewish pawnbroker Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger) is an emotional fortress impervious to the world around him. With no faith in God or humankind, Nazerman becomes increasingly bitter and callous on the anniversary of his wife's death, even to those, like shop clerk Jesus Ortiz (Jaime Sanchez) and Harlem social worker Marilyn Birchfield (Geraldine Fitzgerald)-a Holocaust survivor herself-who offer him friendship. Are his wounds too deep to heal? One of the few films to deal head-on with the psychological havoc wreaked on survivors of the Nazi extermination camps, Sidney Lumet's "Pawnbroker" is a bleak, hard-hitting story about imprisonment, both literal and metaphorical. Steiger, in a virtuoso performance, portrays a man so scarred by his witnessing of atrocities that he's become a paragon of emotional cruelty, quietly stewing in his hate and pain. Lumet wrings tension from Sol's jarring, sudden flashbacks as well as the urban setting, drawing sharp parallels between New York City's ghetto milieu and the wartime camps. With a somber jazz score by Quincy Jones, "Pawnbroker" is a gritty tale of unlucky survival.
The Shop On Main Street (1965) -- During the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, Antonin (Jozef Kroner), an ineffectual worker whose brother-in-law is the town's chief Nazi collaborator, gets assigned to be "Aryan owner" of a button shop long operated by Rozalie Lautman (Ida Kaminska) an old, increasingly senile Jewish lady. Antonin can't make the still-spirited, energetic Rozalie understand she now works for him; she sees him as her new assistant, oblivious to the horror looming just outside her shop. When the Germans start taking the town's Jews to the camps, Antonin must resolve whether to turn Rozalie in, or risk his life by hiding her. A deserving winner of the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1966, "Shop" is a haunting tale of the holocaust. Directed by Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos with simplicity and restraint, the heart-rending story unfolds gradually, with a pitch-perfect rendering of the two central characters (by Kroner and Kaminska) keeping us glued to the screen. Released by the Criterion Collection, this unforgettable testament to the horrific ravages of the Second War should not be missed.
The Garden Of The Finzi-Continis (1970) -- Attempting to preserve their idyllic way of life while Mussolini stirs up anti-Semitic hatred outside, the aristocratic Jewish Finzi-Contini family spend their days picnicking with friends, playing parlor games, and romping on Eden-like tennis courts. Middle-class Jew Giorgio (Lino Capolicchio), a regular guest, is deeply in love with childhood sweetheart, Micol (Dominique Sanda), but she turns from him to pursue his more sexually aggressive friend, Malnate (Fabio Testi). As war rolls closer to home, the Finzi-Continis' days of heaven are increasingly numbered. Vittorio de Sica's gorgeous, elegiac film is a solemn meditation on loss of innocence set during one of the most turbulent eras in world history. The Finzi-Continis believe their privilege will protect them from fascist oppression, but their willed isolation and passivity only makes their eventual downfall that much more tragic. Certain images- Giorgio and Micol's ill-fated romantic tryst in a buggy, the slow-motion halcyon portraits of each family member that closes the film- really stick with you. A poetic, lyrical masterwork by the great Neorealist director.
The Boat Is Full (1981) -- After their train is halted near the Swiss border, a handful of German Jewish nationals sprint for the border amid a hail of Nazi bullets, rather than face death. Once across, they take shelter at an inn run by Franz and Anna Flueckiger (Mathias Gnadinger and Renate Steiger), who are at first reluctant to house these haggard refugees. When the Swiss authorities come to investigate, their only hope for asylum is to pretend they're a family, which requires Judith Krueger (Tina Engel) to pose as the wife of Karl Schneider (Gerd David), an AWOL Nazi. During World War II, famously neutral Switzerland closed its borders to the incoming waves of people attempting to escape Hitler's Third Reich, sending back those who did not meet its strict new definition of political refugees. Markus Imhoof's forlorn, Oscar-nominated film, based in part on a work of history by Alfred A. Hasler, depicts this little-known facet of the Holocaust years in wrenching psychological detail. Imhoof draws strong performances from his entire cast, telling a tragic story of desperation, camaraderie, and bureaucratic cruelty. An undiscovered gem.
Shoah (1985) -- This landmark film, eleven years in the making, is a first-person testimonial about the horrors of the Holocaust, the banality of evil, and the Third Reich's meticulous planning of mass extinction in Europe. Traveling the globe, director Claude Lanzmann speaks with camp survivors, former SS troopers, and other eyewitnesses to Hitler's genocidal program, many of whom speak reluctantly but bluntly about their experiences. Among Holocaust documentaries, Lanzmann's "Shoah" is the most accomplished and legendary, brimming with raw social-historical insight and absolutely chilling personal detail. Based entirely on interviews, the film offers an unprecedented oral history of Europe in the 1930s and '40s without dry voiceovers and gliding shots of still photos: the survivors Lanzmann speaks to are brutally frank, the questions he poses almost unthinkably intimate, yet exactly the ones we want to know the answers to. You shouldn't see this because it's an "important" film, though it is--see it because, assuming you invest the time (nearly ten hours) and attention, it's one of the greatest film experiences you'll ever have.
Good Evening, Mr. Wallenberg (1990) -- As the coldly devastating consequences of Hitler's Final Solution roil the streets and ghettoes of Budapest in 1944, mild-mannered businessman Raoul Wallenberg (Stellan Skarsgard) strives valiantly to protect Hungarian Jews from death at the hands of the Nazis. Upper class and seemingly above suspicion, Wallenberg generates false documents to help evacuate the innocent to safe houses. But as the war draws to a close, it seems Wallenberg's heroism might be his undoing. Before "Schindler's List" came Kjell Grede's engrossing portrait of a man who risked everything to protect others from ignominious slaughter. In the end, he saved thousands, but was himself accorded a different fate. Skarsgard portrays this little-known hero with dignity and gravitas, while Katharina Thalbach delivers a memorable performance as one of the haunted souls he protects: Marja, a witness to the slaughter of her own children. Grede does not shy from depicting Nazi abominations, and the air of suspense he builds around the discovery of a group of survivors, and the march of the Russian army on Budapest, is unnerving. "Wallenberg" is an unblinking tribute to a remarkable man of action.
Fateless (2005) -- Corralled with other Hungarian Jews onto a train to Auschwitz in 1944, 14-year-old Gyorgy Koves (Marcell Nagy) endures deprivation and harsh treatment at the hands of his Nazi captors, who move him to a hellish work camp where even some of his fellow Jews look down on him for not speaking Yiddish. After months of misery and near-starvation, he survives the liberation, only to experience a ghostly, dreamlike homecoming in war-scarred Budapest. Based on the autobiographical novel by Nobel Prize winner Imre Kertezs, Lajos Koltai's coming-of-age drama "Fateless" examines the Holocaust through the eyes of a child who of necessity grows up fast, trying all the while to make the best of the worst situation. Graced with a swelling score by Ennio Morricone, a haunting performance by Nagy, and impressionistic visuals (Koltai is a veteran lensman), "Fateless" is a richly powerful, stubbornly unsentimental meditation on Jewish identity.
The Counterfeiters (2007) -- Recruited for a top-secret operation by his Nazi captors, Russian-born Jew Solomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), an artist and expert forger before the war, is shipped off to the Mauthausen camp, where he works with a special team of Jewish counterfeiters that includes left-leaning perfectionist Adolf Burger (August Diehl). The men enjoy privileges and escape death by assisting the Reich's scheme to destabilize Allied economies, but as the war grinds on, have to confront the impact of their actions. Based on a book by the real-life Adolf Burger, Ruzowitsky's tense, tightly coiled drama features an exemplary cast, including Markovics, Diehl, and Devid Striesow as the commandant-turned-SS leader who first nabs Sorowitsch in Berlin. What's most compelling about this Holocaust drama is watching the moral evolution of Markovics's character, a shrewd con man accustomed to the good things in life, even in prison. Nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, "The Counterfeiters" deals with an old theme in war films--the art of self-preservation versus the agony of bad conscience.
Note: several more films relating to the Holocaust are slated for our site and highly recommended, including "The Last Stage" (1948), "Border Street" (1948), "Kapo" (1959), and "Europa, Europa" (1990).
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